Geneva Presents a Traditional Siegfried Free of Modern Gimmicks

United KingdomUnited Kingdom    Wagner, Siegfried: Soloists, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande / Ingo Metzmacher (conductor),  Grand Théâtre de Genève, Geneva, Switzerland, 30.1.2014. (JPr)

Siegfried Act III John Daszak and Petra Lang c GTG & CaroleParodi
Siegfried Act III John Daszak and Petra Lang c GTG & CaroleParodi

Siegfried: John Daszak
Mime: Andreas Conrad
Wanderer: Tómas Tómasson
Alberich: John Lundgren
Fafner: Steven Humes
Erda: Maria Radner
Brünnhilde: Petra Lang
Woodbird: Regula Mühlemann


Director: Dieter Dorn
Sets and Costumes: Jürgen Rose
Choreography: Heinz Wanitschek
Lighting: Tobias Löffler
Dramaturge: Hans-Joachim Ruckhäberle


As I mentioned in my Die Walküre review with a bit more pre-planning I could have seen Das Rheingold last season before joining Dieter Dorn and Jürgen Rose’s new Der Ring des Nibelungen for Geneva on that ‘First Day’. However with this wonderful Siegfried I repeat in its entirety what I wrote in November about how these veteran collaborators ‘have decided that Wagner’s Ring – as the first realisation of his Gesamtkunstwerk, an ideal mix of text, music and dance – needs little interpretation. Leave that to Bayreuth! In this opera we might hope for swords, spears, helmets, breastplates, shields and horses – but rarely see them – here they unashamedly are.’

So the new Ring in Geneva continues with two significant stage debuts leaving the future of this cycle in the voices of a new Siegfried and Brünnhilde neither of whom had sung the role on stage before in this opera. At least Petra Lang is a ‘known quantity’ having distinguished herself in many Wagnerian roles as a mezzo (there is no one better as Ortrud today) but she is now venturing into some of the soprano repertoire, notably as Brünnhilde as well as Isolde and Senta. though only in concert performances at the moment. However, John Daszak – reliable singer that he always is – has done little so far in his career to suggest he would be wise to tackle Siegfried. Usually would-be Wagnerian heroes start with Erik (which he has done in Sydney), then try out Siegmund, Parsifal and possibly Lohengrin, none of which he has sung. But that was in the ‘old days’ and now managements are eager to find anyone who might be able to survive the challenges Wagner sets the tenor.

Whoever spotted John Daszak might be a good Siegfried should now be congratulating themselves as it was a most impressive performance. He is not the finished article – this was just his first one – but he has considerable potential. He has a lot going for him apart from his voice: he is tall, thin, and moves around the stage with considerable energy. I already prefer him to Stephen Gould, Lance Ryan and Stefan Vinke – three of the current ‘champions’ of the role of Siegfried. At the moment he is very careful with his German pronunciation but you can hear every word and unlike some non-German singers singing Wagner he really seems to understand what the text means. Most importantly his singing revealed great stamina and was very lyrical throughout a tiring evening. He harnessed his resources during Act I when his volume level was a little on the quiet side but his confidence audibly grew as the finishing line drew closer.

Most of all, John Daszak is a totally believable actor which is good for this production where the drama comes not from the setting but from the psychological motivations in the confrontations between the characters – whether it is Siegfried with Mime, Fafner, Woodbird, the Wanderer or Brünnhilde, Mime with the Wanderer or Alberich, and the Wanderer with Erda. At times it is almost as if we were watching a straight play not an opera. Daszak’s Siegfried is not a bully but is someone clearly frustrated at not knowing who he really is, where he has come from and what life has in store for him. He plays the part shaven headed and director, Dieter Dorn, seems to use this to indicate a family relationship with the Wanderer, and intriguingly, Alberich who are both also shown bald.

Elsewhere, this Siegfried production wears its conventionality as a ‘badge of honour’. It is a simple tale, straightforwardly told, with few directorial gimmicks. Each act begins with the Norns trundling their big ball made up of their rope of fate across the stage. It is an indication that it is the Norns controlling events and not Wotan. He is shown at the start of Act I against the gloomy backdrop of the forest that is pivotal to the action in the second act. The ‘trees’ actually look like huge fronds of kelp below the sea but in fact are the tentacles of Fafner who is eventually shown more as an octopus than a dragon. Towards the front of the stage there is a hint that Siegfried and Mime are living below ground but there are few furnishings and we just see few cuddly toys and a representation of a forge. The Wanderer continues to keep a watchful (one) eye on how things are progressing for him. Andreas Conrad’s Mime is portrayed in almost textbook fashion as a hunchbacked dwarf – no concession to political correctness here – shuffling around and making his devious plans to poison Siegfried once he realises he can win the ring for him. He sings with all the vocal mannerisms of the best Mimes and never appears to be any real vocal competition for Siegfried as sometimes can happen these days.

So far there had not been much work for the 31 members of Heinz Wanitschek’s well-drilled, mostly black-clad, ‘movement group’ – not counting another extra who was in a bear costume and dragged along by Siegfried – but they come into their own in Act II where we are at the heart of the ‘forest’. I enjoyed the Wanderer’s appearance being signalled by flashing lights and leaves being blown in the wind. The duality of Alberich and the Wanderer (dark and light) is clearly shown by their encounter. There is also a real sense of peril in Siegfried’s fight with Fafner as he gets entangled in the undulating worm-like (and appropriately Wurm-like for once) tentacles. Fafner’s huge head rose earlier in the background like one of those massive carved stone heads from the ancient Mexican Olmec civilisation. There are a number of individually coloured birds on sticks that shudder when Siegfried attempts to mimic their calls;  the Woodbird itself flaps a vivid red and is manipulated  Noh-style by an agile-voiced Regula Mühlemann clad fully in black. The only thing I had to think about the whole evening was the sight of some copulating grey figures in what might be stylised tree trunks. At the end when the these artists took their curtain call some were in animal print, so perhaps these shadowy figures cavorting when Siegfried blew his horn represented the fecundity of the forest? When Fafner, in ‘human’ form, appeared on stage having been stabbed by Nothung he looked like the Incredible Hulk – though not as green! I particularly liked the way Siegfried appeared to reveal genuine remorse at having killed his foe.

The sets for Act III were much sparer and firstly Erda writhed about like a slug on the ground. We then see the two human-sized ravens (like the Norns a recurring feature of this Ring) chasing away the Woodbird and towards the end Brünnhilde’s catafalque, formed from slabs of ‘rock’ surrounded by silver mirrored panels, slides to the front of the stage with a model horse, Grane, nodding gently at the side since it has also ‘awoken’ along with his warrior mistress. All those domed heads on show and the Wanderer’s hints of Ancient Egyptian in his costume could suggest a priesthood but I began to think they might in fact be Japanese warrior monks – who knows? Then again, Brünnhilde was then shown wearing something flowing but also rather vaguely Indian. This scene was the vocal highlight of the evening as Petra Lang’s Brünnhilde awakes fresh from her slumbers and is alone on stage with John Daszak’s valiant Siegfried who has already been singing for nearly three hours.

Siegfried overcomes his awkward moment well when he realises there is a woman sleeping there and not a man. (Can someone answer where Siegfried would actually have seen a woman before?) Then Ms Lang starts singing and Daszak more than holds his own in the duet. There are few sopranos in this generation with the range of Petra Lang’s voice; there are all the colours she can create, as well as, the flexibility for the more florid moments and the way she attacks the fearsome high tessitura with incisiveness and strength. ‘Heil dir, Sonne! Heil dir, Licht’ (‘Hail to thee, sun! Hail to thee, light!’) rings out and then her performance reveals all you would expect from a woman brought back to life by someone she likes the look of but is emotionally conflicted by. She has her memories of her past life as a goddess and is assuaged with doubt over what will now become of her in the arms of this … man. Inwardly, she remains a warrior but as she falls into Siegfried’s arms as the curtain comes down she has become a woman. Roll on Götterdämmerung in April for the next developments in their relationship!

Obviously I have heard many Siegfrieds over the last 40 years since my first one conducted by Reginald Goodall for English National Opera: that performance was probably more than 45 minutes longer than Ingo Metzmacher’s 3¾ hours that is very much the norm these day. For me this pacing and the refined, almost chamber-like, quality of some of the accompaniment by the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande seemed perfect for Wagner’s mostly pre-Tristan scoring. The natural world shone through in Metzmacher’s reading but it never lacked incident and passion when necessary. For this Ring he has an ensemble that matches this more low-key musical approach – there is a conversational quality to the singing by all concerned and I alluded to this earlier when I compared what we were seeing as a ‘straight play’. I cannot immediately remember such a uniformly good cast for any Siegfried I have seen since those early ENO days. I have referred to the excellent Mime and Woodbird but there were similarly sterling efforts from Tómas Tómasson’s majestically defiant, yet ultimately defeated, Wanderer that was well-characterised and richly sung, as well as, John Lundgren’s incipiently malevolent Alberich, Steven Humes’ suitably cavernous Fafner and Maria Radner’s portentous Erda.

Jim Pritchard

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